A patient is wheeled into NYU Langone Hospital in New York during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: John Nacion / NurPhoto / AFP

China’s face-mask diplomacy appears to be falling apart after American companies were blocked from shipping crucial medical equipment out of the country to the United States.

In a move that is bound to infuriate President Donald Trump’s administration, “large quantities of critical protective gear and other health-care goods are sitting in warehouses across China” because of a clearance hold-up by officials, according to an exclusive Wall Street Journal report.

The medical supplies are desperately needed by the US as it battles the Covid-19 pandemic with infections soaring to more than 644,000 and the death toll edging towards 29,000, the most worldwide.

“Health-care equipment maker PerkinElmer, based in Massachusetts, is unable to ship 1.4 million test kits from its Suzhou factory because it lacks a certification required by the new rules,” a State Department memo cited by the Journal said.

“A Shanghai vice-mayor told Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M that the city ‘relies on 3M’s locally produced N-95 respirators for its Covid-19 prevention efforts and lacks viable alternatives.’ The official [also] ‘signaled that lifting restrictions on distribution of the company’s masks would require instructions from Beijing,’” the Journal added, according to American business memos and US diplomatic documents.

The fact that President Xi Jinping’s government appears to be sitting on the shipments will add to the already toxic air hanging over Beijing and Washington.

Earlier this week, Trump announced he would suspend funding to the World Health Organization after accusing it of being complicit in a Chinese coverup when the outbreak surfaced in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, in December.

Funding

The US donated US$893 million to the WHO between 2018 and 2019, or 14.67% of its total funding, compared to China’s $86 million, or just 0.21%, the organization’s website shows.

“The WHO pushed China’s misinformation about the virus,” Trump told a White House media conference on Tuesday.

“We have not been treated properly,” he said, adding that the suspension period would last for up to 90 days.

Trump has also questioned China’s transparency over the Covid-19 pandemic and questioned the country’s infection numbers, which stand at 82,341 alongside a death toll of 3,342.

Medical staff in Wuhan check information from patients who had been tested for Covid-19 on April 16. Photo: AFP / Hector Retamal

Moreover, his comments followed weeks of referring to the highly infectious disease as the “China virus.” 

“Do you really believe those numbers in this vast country called China?” Trump said at a press conference. “We report everything, we’re reporting the cases and our reporting is good. We’re reporting every death.”

Naturally, his remarks provoked an angry response from China’s media. Hu Xijin, the influential editor of the state-run tabloid, the Global Times, argued that Trump was playing to his supporters ahead of this year’s presidential elections.

“Fox News published a ridiculous report claiming SP: Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan lab. President Trump helped hype this story to divert [the] public’s attention. It’s a dirty trick. Trump will further exploit [the] China topic for his reelection campaign,” Hu tweeted even though Twitter is banned in the world’s second-largest economy.

Concerns

Still, the Wall Street Journal story is sure to trigger consternation in the US and add to growing concerns about China’s face-mask diplomacy.

Aid shipments to Europe were initially praised by Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But on a country-by-country basis, the virus test kits have failed to measure up to regional standards.

Health authorities in Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Turkey and the United Kingdom have complained of faulty antigen, or antibody coronavirus tests, bought for millions of dollars from Chinese companies.

In the Netherlands, the government planned to return 600,000 face masks because of inadequate filters, media reports said.

“We must be aware there is a geopolitical component, including a struggle for influence, through spinning and the politics of generosity. Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors,” Josep Borrell, a senior foreign policy official with the European Union, pointed out in a blog, referring to China.

Yet the Wall Street Journal report that vital medical supplies for the US are being blocked by Beijing could be the spark that explodes China’s face-mask diplomacy myth.

At the same time, it looks certain to give the White House another Covid-19-inspired epileptic fit.

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